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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012

Should scientists study prayer? IU scholar's book explains why they should

April 26, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Four in five Americans believe in the healing power of prayer, according to surveys, and even a majority of medical doctors say that miraculous healing sometimes occurs.

Yet when it comes to subjecting such claims to scientific investigation, little has been done. Believers say it's wrong to reduce God's power to something that can be tested in a laboratory. Skeptics say it demeans science to study claims of phenomena with no rational explanation.

Candy Gunther Brown

Candy Gunther Brown

Print-Quality Photo

In "Testing Prayer: Science and Healing," published this month by Harvard University Press, Candy Gunther Brown argues that the practice of praying for healing can and should be a subject for scientific study.

"Science cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a suprahuman force or whether such an entity answers prayer," said Brown, an associate professor of religious studies in the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences. "But how prayer practices affect health is an empirical question. And we can -- and should -- use empirical methods to answer this question."

"Testing Prayer" results from eight years of study by Brown of healing prayer practices among Pentecostal Christians, a group that is growing rapidly around the globe. She has traveled across the United States and to Canada, Brazil and Mozambique to watch how people in different cultures pray for healing. She also has examined medical records, conducted surveys, tested people's hearing and vision, and performed follow-up interviews to better understand what's involved.

Her research focuses in particular on the transnational activities of Global Awakening and Iris Ministries, Pentecostal groups that developed from the Toronto Blessing movement of the 1990s.

Although some previous studies have attempted to measure the effectiveness of distant, anonymous prayer, Brown argues that investigations should focus on proximal intercessory prayer, or PIP, which is typically employed by Christians seeking divine healing. PIP involves physical touch, emotional empathizing and appeals to the direct experience of God's presence and love.

She says four "cameras" can provide useful, complementary perspectives on healing prayer:

  • Medical records: Examining individual records from before and after prayer can provide a check on whether patients experience an objective change in condition.
  • Surveys: Subjects can, through responses to survey questions, provide insight into how they experience healing. For example, evidence shows that most people who seek healing through prayer also pursue conventional treatment from medical providers.
  • Clinical trials: Brown worked in Mozambique with medical researchers to examine the hearing and vision of subjects before and after prayer. They found improvements that were greater than would be expected from random recovery or placebo effects.
  • Follow-up: Long-term observation and interviews can shed light on whether the experience of healing is long-lasting and whether the subjects' perceptions of healing change over time.

"Testing Prayer" traces the controversy over whether prayer should be tested back to the Protestant Reformation, when reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that miracles were no longer important as a means of revealing God's power. In the late 1800s, scientific naturalists argued that claims of divine healing should be judged on empirical grounds, but believers typically resisted. A hundred years later, some advocates of divine healing claimed to welcome scrutiny; but researchers often rejected the idea that science should be put to the test in evaluating superstitions.

Brown cites the late biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who said science and religion are "non-overlapping magisteria" that govern different realms of wisdom. But Brown argues that the two realms can learn from each other.

"If prayer practices can affect health -- for better or for worse -- it seems to me that doctors, patients and policymakers should all want to know," she said. "Once we have a clearer answer to the questions of whether and in what direction prayer affects health, we can look more closely at possible mechanisms."

Brown is a historian and ethnographer of religion and culture who focuses on religion in the Americas and global cultural flows. Her previous books include "Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing" as editor (Oxford University Press, 2011) and "The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880" (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

To speak with Brown, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or